Money does buy politicians

There is a persistent paradox in discussions about politics, especially in academia. Businesses, interest groups, and their lobbyists give vast amounts of money to politicians and this naturally leads to the impression that many of our politicians can be bought and sold like commodities. After all, why throw money away on some thing that produces little or no returns? And yet, I have found that academic studies by political scientists and economists tend to argue that money is not a decisive factor in how legislators vote on issues. I have been to many seminars and political scientists almost always dismiss as ignorant those who suggest that money buys votes or can change the way people vote. They suggest other reasons why money flows to politicians, such as that people give money to those politicians who already agree with them. In other words, it is a reward for past practices rather than a bribe to change future behavior, to keep people who are already on your side from defecting rather than trying to win over opponents.

But Jon Schwarz says that a new study supports the popular view and contradicts the academic view.

Strangely, almost the only human beings who think that money doesn’t warp politics are academic political scientists who study it. The Roosevelt study quotes a previous paper summarizing the “scholarly consensus” as being that “candidate spending has very modest to negligible causal effects on candidate vote shares.”

It’s also tough to legitimately measure how money could translate into congressional votes. Legislation often is thwarted by small numbers of politicians in committees, too few to create a good data set. In the Senate, few votes are ever taken, with most of the action going on beneath the surface. And there’s a continuous churn of elected officials, making it hard to find an inflection point in the decisions of any one individual.

The Roosevelt Institute study tried a different tack, focusing on important pieces of legislation that had multiple votes, and looked at how Democrats voted. Here’s what the Executive Summary of the report Fifty Shade of Green by Thomas Ferguson, Jie Chen, Paul Jorgensen says.

To test the influence of money on financial regulation votes, they analyze the U.S. House of Representatives voting on measures to weaken the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. Taking care to control as many factors as possible that could influence floor votes, they focus most of their attention on representatives who originally voted in favor of the bill and subsequently to dismantle key provisions of it. Because these are the same representatives, belonging to the same political party, in substantially the same districts, many factors normally advanced to explain vote shifts are ruled out from the start. The authors’ panel analysis highlights the importance played by time-varying factors, especially political money, in moving representatives to shift their positions on amendments such as the “swaps push out” alteration, which Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to head off.

The authors test five votes from 2013 to 2015, finding the link between campaign contributions from the financial sector and switching to a pro-bank vote to be direct and substantial. The results indicate that for every $100,000 that Democratic representatives received from finance, the odds they would break with their party’s majority support for the Dodd-Frank legislation increased by 13.9 percent. Democratic representatives who voted in favor of finance often received $200,000–$300,000 from that sector, which raised the odds of switching by 25–40 percent.

The authors also test whether representatives who left the House at the end of 2014 behaved differently. They find that these individuals were much more likely to break with their party and side with the banks. They also determine that members of the House Financial Services Committee were far more likely to support the banks on repealing elements of Dodd-Frank. More conservative representatives, as measured on a rating scale that ran from 0 to 100 for the 113th Congress, were also more likely to side with the banks by 9 percent for each percentage point more conservative their ideology was.

The report then tested the money-vote link in connection with the net neutrality vote.

In testing the link between industry contributions and congressional votes in the telecommunications sector, the authors consider House voting on network neutrality—that is, whether telecom firms can charge clients different rates to gain privileged access to their internet “wires” (or other conduits) to customers, thus creating a “two-speed” internet. Their analysis of the first major clash in the House over this issue, a proposal advanced by Representative Markey in 2006, again produces dramatic evidence of the importance of political money in congressional voting.

The authors consider the vote in support of the Markey amendment to protect network neutrality to be a vote against the interests of cable and phone companies. The authors statistically analyze the vote each representative cast on that issue.

Unsurprisingly, they find party affiliation played an important role. Democrats were lopsidedly more likely to support network neutrality than were Republicans. But money made a substantial difference on both sides. Recipients of money from firms in favor of network neutrality, such as Netflix or Google, whose access to users could be affected, were considerably more likely to vote in favor of Markey’s amendment: Every additional $1,000 dollars decreased the odds of voting against by 24 percent. Similarly, contributions from firms opposed to network neutrality were also telling: every $1,000 increased the chances of a vote against by 2.6 percent. The more conservative a representative was, the more likely he or she was to vote against network neutrality. Telecom employment in the district did not seem to matter, but district median income did: Every $1,000 in additional income decreased the odds of a vote against network neutrality by 7.2 percent.

Their conclusion is bleak but not surprising.

The message of Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen’s study is simple: Money influences key congressional floor votes on both finance and telecommunication issues. Americans may not have the “best Congress money can buy”—after all, as they note, their results could be even bleaker—but there is no point in pretending that what appears to be the voice of the people is really often the sound of money talking.

So money can buy politicians. While this may come under the ‘well, duh’ heading, similar to proving that the sky is blue, it is an important study to counter those who argue that money is largely irrelevant.


  1. says

    In other words, it is a reward for past practices

    Wait, what? If I pay you $100/month for being you, and then I keep paying you as long as you keep being you, it’s a reward for past practices. And if you stop being likable, I stop paying you -- isn’t it reasonable to expect that you’re going to tend to want to stay likable?

    It seems like they’ve come up with a carefully tuned definition of “money influencing politicians” that omits one of the ways money influences politicians.

  2. says

    As Robert T. Morris Sr once commented, “The tragedy of ABSCAM is not that it shows our politicians are for sale, but that you and I can afford one.”

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